Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Academy for the Social Sciences

  On behalf of the Academy of Learned Societies for the Social Sciences, I wish to provide a written response to your inquiry into short-term research contracts in science and engineering.

  Below, I have addressed each of the questions being sought by the Commons Science and Technology Committee. However, before I supply our response I have detailed briefly our contribution to science and technology.


  The Academy was established in 2000 and comprises over 40 Societies, Associations and research organisations who represent the social sciences in both academic and applied setting throughout the United Kingdom. Outstanding individual scholars and practitioners in social science are also members through their election as Academicians. Many of our Social Scientists work with Scientists and Engineers on a range of projects. Further details of the Academy are available on our website (

  Our membership represents a significant sector of employment and many of the institutes and organisations that contribute to the Academy's employ researchers on short-term contracts.

  In this context, we consulted our membership and have provided a summary of their views and how such issues impact on higher education in particular.

Does the Preponderance of Short-Term Research Contracts Really Matter?

  Our main concerns relating to this question are the opportunities for researchers to develop a positive career in their specialism and the lack of security arising from contracts, especially for more senior positions. Certainly if funding of short-term research is seen within a wider context of higher education, since the 1980s the competition for short-term contracts has intensified because of the Research Assessment Exercises (RAE). Although some funding is long term, such as core funding to research centres by such bodies as the Economic and Social Research Council, there is still a large amount of short term funded research within the academic community.

  Short-term contracts are bad for researchers because they make a career in University research an unattractive option. It is equally bad for the research sector and research funders in that many of the people who have the potential to be excellent researchers are not going into the higher education sector in the first place. Those that do enter this sector are likely to end up in teaching, where there are more dependable jobs (especially for those who have family responsibilities and who need a regular and reliable income). This means that funders are potentially unlikely to get the best researchers working on their projects. In addition, the attention of staff during the last few months of a contract is often on getting another contract or job, rather than satisfactorily completing their current project.

  There is also a detrimental effect on the general development of knowledge in society and lifelong learning. Because people on short-term contracts are likely to move on in their careers, there is the concern that researchers take on a wide range of work rather than developing expertise.

What are the Implications for Researchers and Their Careers?

  Several of the points I have made in the earlier section will relate to this question too. The term "career" implies some long-term progression or linear promotion within an occupation or through a series of occupations involving increasing levels of responsibility at each stage. There has been a growth in the number of fixed term lectureships in higher education. According to Bryson[1], 80 per cent of new academic posts are fixed term, and 40 per cent of academic labour is employed fixed term or on a temporary basis. This rises to 52 per cent if hourly paid staff is included in this analysis. Certainly the RAE has created a buoyant employment market, but this will not continue without significant increases in the funding of our major research institutions.

  The implications of this increase in contracts on research careers looks bleak with contract researchers not being well paid, having no career structure and no security of employment. Often people find it hard to progress out of the RA1A scale and many of those who stay in research and who do several post-doctorate contracts become stuck at the same point. Although Universities have been engaged in research for a long time, there appears to be no attempt to support research units or teams and create permanent posts for researchers. In such situations researchers leave for more secure positions outside higher education (such as industry or commerce) or take on heavy teaching loads. Such situations lead researchers to the feeling that conducting research is not recognised as being a valued part of their work.

Is there evidence that the present situation causes good researchers to leave?

  Although we have not collected any factual evidence of this matter, there is a lack of research capacity particularly for mature, experienced researchers who are capable of managing a research team or managing complex projects.

  In some subjects (such as law and economics in the social sciences), there are documented skill shortages. This may well be the situation too in the sectors of science and technology. It is questionable whether this is the effect of remuneration in the private sector vis a vis the public sector or other factors such as the burden of student debt, job insecurity or work loads.

What Would be the Right Balance Between Contract and Permanent Research Staff in Universities and Research Institutions?

  At present, universities are supposed to be in a regime of full funding of research by research grants but this is not actually the case and there is insufficient HEFCE funding to employ large numbers of permanent research staff. Therefore, research staff tend to be employed on short-term contracts, because universities are reluctant to offer contracts beyond the funding available, and there are relatively few permanent posts dedicated wholly to research.

  If the aim of the question is to consider options for improving the quality of research, one solution would be to change the funding system to allow universities to employ more permanent research staff, for example as Experimental Officers etc. However, a side-effect of this would be that, after a couple of years, far fewer young people would be taking post-doctorate positions and it is not clear where the new lecturers would come from.

  It may be worthwhile comparing the conditions of employment of research staff in other countries such as France. One important funding source in France is from the state through the CNRS, which does award longer-term contracts to research staff. Does such funding produce better research outputs and a working environment more conducive to research quality and quantity? France has begun to evaluate research; a simpler version of the UK RAE has recently taken place, so it could be interesting to compare results.

Has the Concordate and the Research Careers Initiative Made any Difference?

  The Concordate is seen to be very weak and does not make the employer responsible for making proper use of human resources. Nevertheless it is important to have a policy such as the Concordate, but trade unions such as the AUT, NATFE and the Contract Research and Teaching Staff Forum (SRTSF) also play an important role. For many contract staff the key concern is securing their next contract.

How should Policy Move Forward?

  It is important that there is a clear direction from the Government as to the role of Universities. If it is the aim of government to increase the number of permanent researchers then there needs to be an effective method of paying for them.

  A return to a more balanced dual funding regime would be necessary to increase the number of permanent research staff as well as a well-defined career structure. In a sense, this already exists. Universities have academic scales, experimental officer grades, research grades etc that rise all the way to professorial level. However, the problems are (a) that people on temporary contracts either are not here long enough to make progress or (b) are employed on a particular post that does not allow them to expand their experience. Point (a) is intimately related to the nature of the funding. The staff are temporary because the funding is temporary and the funding is temporary because it is related almost wholly to "projects" with insufficient HEFCE support. Point (b) is more complex. Research staff are often appointed to do a specific job. Although this job may need someone with a PhD, it may not have any prospects for career development. Such jobs probably are best left to researchers on temporary contracts.

  There may be merit in comparing policy and practice in other advanced capitalist economies with a stronger research culture to that currently prevailing in the UK. Second, following the recent announcement by Robert Gordon University[2] that it is to give all contract researchers job security—the first British university to do so—the scheme should be studied for possible utilisation by other British universities.

  Overall, there should be a commitment that all staff within Universities be employed on the same terms and conditions unless there are exceptional circumstances.

2 July 2002

1   Bryson C-"The Rising Tide of Casualisation" AUTLook, 217,5-7 Back

2   Wojtas O, Contract culture ended at RGU, Times Higher Education Supplement, May 31st 2002, 4. Back

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